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A veteran Black journalist looks back on the LA Riots of ’92 — and the anguish of covering today’s protests

A veteran Black journalist looks back on the LA Riots of ’92 — and the anguish of covering today’s protests

Picture of Sylvester Monroe
The intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles, a flashpoint for the 1992 riots sparked by the police acquittals in t
The intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles, a flashpoint for the 1992 riots sparked by the police acquittals in the Rodney King beating.
(Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

“My press pass used to shield me from police violence. Sadly, yours may not protect you.”

Days before the verdicts in the trial of four White Los Angeles police officers charged with the brutal beating of Rodney King, I suggested a story about the disquiet in a Black community waiting for justice once again. For me, the tension in the air was palpable. My bosses at Time magazine dismissed the idea.

I could never have predicted what happened in LA in 1992. But when the not-guilty verdicts were read in that Simi Valley courtroom, I was as angry and frustrated as the people who flooded into the streets.

The four days of violent protests – resulting in more than 50 deaths, 2,000 injuries and $1 billion in property damage – remains the single worst civil disturbance in U.S. history. It was born of the same pent up fury and grief over excessive police force against Black people that had ignited the Watts riots of 1965 — and that have sparked massive protests over the killing of George Floyd.

As a Black man, I share the anger and frustration of today’s protesters, as I did nearly 30 years ago. It pains me that Black journalists covering the unrest face many of the same challenges I confronted back then — and more. They have become targets of police brutality and hostility, something I never imagined in 1992.

Then I was a correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau of Time magazine. I huddled around the television with my White colleagues as the verdicts were read. Every time the foreman announced “not guilty,” I felt I’d been kicked in the stomach.

Though my White Time colleagues were also my friends, listening to those verdicts, I could not look at them. The rage welling up in my chest made me want to smack White people, not to injure them, but to shock them out of the privilege that often blinds them to anyone’s perspective or pain but their own. So as LA went up in flames, I hit the streets reporting what I saw and heard and trying to make sense of something that made no sense to people who would not understand how or why Black people could destroy their own neighborhoods.

Watching the city erupt in violence and destruction, I saw a group of protesters shouting at policemen in riot gear protecting a burning office building. When one of the protesters, a young Black man, began screaming, “Burn, baby, burn!” and “How you like me now, Mr. Policeman?” I wanted to scream, too, and not just at the police. I wanted to scream at my bosses.

Just as the people demonstrating in the streets felt their cries for police reform and justice had fallen on deaf ears, I wanted to scream at my bosses who had not been listening to me. I wanted to scream the frustration of being a Black reporter and having to bury my personal feelings in the name of journalistic objectivity. I wanted to scream the frustration of always having to be mindful of the sensibilities of White readers and rarely being able to express those of Black people. While I would never throw a brick or light a fire or assault anyone, I wanted to scream at the police, my bosses and White people everywhere. But I was a Time correspondent, and I could not.

Later, in the wee hours of the morning after sending my files, I was so hyped I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote about the rage and frustration I shared with the protesters and sent it to my editors. The only response I received was, “That’s really intense.” Time did not publish it. It was later published in the NABJ Journal, the newspaper of the National Association of Black Journalists. Senator Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, had it read into the Congressional Record, to help explain the Black rage that had destroyed large sections of a major U.S. city and smolders inside just about every Black American. 

It wasn’t the only time my White editors dismissed what I had to offer as a Black reporter. In 1995, when an estimated 1 million Black men showed up in Washington, DC, for the Million Man March, the Time editors again missed an opportunity to get in front of a big story. It was the largest peaceful demonstration by African American men in recent memory. I suggested that since the march was happening on a Monday, Time should have a cover story on the news stands that day about Black men and the issues that prompted the march, which included police brutality. The suggestion was met by questions I could not answer: for example, were there really going to be 1 million men there?

Instead of doing it for my employer, I wrote a cover story for Emerge, the now defunct Black news magazine. Flying from LA to Washington to cover the march for Time, I upgraded to first class, where I sat with four other Black men reading the Emerge cover. It was later a finalist for the prestigious National Magazine Award.

There has been some positive change in the decades since the LA unrest, as it is often referred to now. The creation of an independent civilian police review board, inspired efforts at community policing, and more sensitive leadership at the command levels of the LAPD have greatly improved relations between the police department and the Black community in the city. But none of it has prevented violent incidents since the Rodney King beating, in LA and other cities across the country. What happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the span of a few weeks has almost become commonplace.

But in distressing ways, things have become even more challenging for Black journalists covering street protests. They have become part of the story, as they are now sometimes arrested or assaulted just for trying to do their jobs.

To them I would say, above all else, be safe and avoid confrontations with the police. The “talk” you probably got as a child about how to deal with the police is as valid today as it ever was. My press pass used to shield me from police violence; sadly, yours may not protect you.

And when editors resist your ideas, push harder than I did. Find a way to convince them you can be accurate, fair and balanced while bringing a unique perspective to stories such as police misconduct and the protests that often follow. Sometimes White editors reject stories by Black reporters because they believe in some instances that Black journalists cannot be objective when covering controversial issues involving Black people.

When I was at Newsweek, an editor once told me he was not comfortable sending African American reporters to cover stories in Africa because he was not sure we could be objective. Not only is it untrue, it is also offensive to assume that Black journalists cannot be as objective when they cover Black people as White reporters are covering White people.

Ironically, many of the first Black reporters hired at major newspapers across the country got their jobs because it was either unsafe for White reporters to cover events like the Watts riots, or Black people wouldn’t talk to White journalists.

Perhaps, a silver lining in this dark cloud of protests over police misconduct and an unfair “justice” system will be a new appreciation for what Black journalists can bring to important stories like this — and for the strength and courage it takes to tell them.

Sylvester Monroe is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and a former editor and reporter at the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek.

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